Once upon a time, a little girl called Ofelia was born to a beautiful mother and a caring father, who were very much in love. Unfortunately, by the time this story starts, that happy time is long gone. Now Ofelia’s father is dead and, in the volatile Spain of 1944, a young widow and a little girl need protection. Ofelia’s mother has made a dangerous gamble and chosen to marry again, to the brutal Capitán Vidal. She is already heavy with his child and now, like a monster in a fable, he’s waiting for them in the old house he uses as his base, deep in the middle of a forest. Ofelia can’t resist drawing comparisons with fairy tales. She loves them. They help her make sense of the world around her, and now, as Spanish men kill other Spanish men, and evil digs its tendrils into her life, Ofelia will need her imagination more than ever. Darkness awaits her at Capitán Vidal’s farmhouse, but something else awaits her too. An extraordinary discovery: a labyrinth, a faun, and a promise – and a quest, which Ofelia must undertake to prove her worth. Based on the 2006 film, this is a deliciously dark homage to the magic of books and fairy tales, emphatically not for children (except grown-up ones).
Ofelia doesn’t really understand why they have to go and live with Vidal in the forest. She doesn’t understand why they couldn’t just carry on as they were, or why her mother is so frightened nowadays, or why her mother has less and less time for the stories Ofelia loves. As they settle into their new home, Ofelia realises that everyone is frightened of Vidal, who casually wields the power of life and death, not only over the guerillas hiding in the forest, but also over his servants, his men and, needless to say, his new wife and stepdaughter. Ofelia learns to hide, to keep small, and to creep around for fear of provoking Vidal’s unpredictable cruelty. She finds sanctuary in the books she loves, believing that her mother is no longer able to appreciate these fairy tales. Little does she know that adults, too, have fairy tales, to which they cling desperately in times of trouble; and Ofelia’s mother is no different: ‘Carmen Cardoso believed the most dangerous tale of all: the one of the prince who would save her‘.
But the prospect of salvation comes from the most extraordinary place. Ofelia discovers a labyrinth in the forest near the house, a curious maze full of ancient carvings and mysterious symbols. She’d already spotted a fairy on their car journey to the house – though her mother hadn’t been able to see it – and now she encounters a creature stranger still: a towering faun, an ancient being who tells her a fantastical tale. Ofelia is not a crushed little girl living a hopeless life in a country that’s tearing itself apart. On the contrary, she is the princess of the great underground realm that lies beneath the labyrinth. She has been lost for many years, while her grieving parents waited for her to return, and now the faun – their court official – offers Ofelia the chance to restore her birthright. Like all heroes, she must complete three tasks to prove her wit and her identity: only then will she be returned to her true life with her living, loving parents. Ofelia agrees – who doesn’t dream of being a lost princess? – and the quest begins.
What is true, though? Who is seeing clearly? Can Ofelia, the unspoiled child, see the ancient forces of the world which the adults around her are too jaded to notice? Is the magic real? Or are the faun, the quest, the royal blood, just the products of an overactive imagination stuffed with too many fairy tales and traumatised by the cruelty of a new stepfather? Is life, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, just nasty, brutish and short? While Ofelia embarks on her great quest, watched over by the enigmatic servant Mercedes, her mother Carmen struggles to adapt to her chosen life. Terror has become her constant companion: ‘She didn’t remember how it felt to look at anything without despising it, without being afraid of it. All she saw was a world that took what she loved and ground it to dust between its teeth.’ And what of Vidal, the evil villain of the piece? Even he has his personal story, his dream, his grandeur. Even as he inflicts death and mutilation on others, he does so from a twisted sense of honour: ‘Death was the only love in Vidal’s heart. His greatest romance. Nothing compared to it. So grand, so absolute, a celebration of darkness, of finally giving in completely.’ Everyone has their own fairy tale.
The book is written with the same almost sing-song storyteller’s simplicity that defined the film. Horrible things happen, but we dance between worlds, never quite sure whether we are in brutal reality or a dreamlike fairy-tale. I’m not quite sure how the division of labour worked, between Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke, but it’s a treat to have the latter involved in bringing the former’s world to life, and it’s remarkable how accurately they manage to capture the essence of the film in prose. With del Toro’s signature twisted fantasy, and Funke’s literary flair, it’s a match made in heaven, resulting in a book that stands triumphantly alone as a work of fiction, quite independent from the film. Brooding, ominous, nightmarish and beautiful.
There’s an obvious question that needs to be asked, isn’t there? If you’ve seen the film, do you really need to read the book as well? I’m not sure you do. The book adds a few extra dark fairy-tales, and is beautifully written, but it doesn’t offer anything substantially different from the film. In fact, it’s largely a scene-for-scene recreation of the film, which is why I’ve only given it four stars, because for all its impact it isn’t original. I also find it odd that the book has been released so long after the film, with so little to differentiate it, save the medium. Perhaps it’s simply meant to extend the reach of the story, and to find a different audience among those who haven’t seen the film at all, and in that sense it works brilliantly. Perhaps there are lots of people out there who won’t contemplate a film with subtitles, even one as brilliant as Pan’s Labyrinth. Newcomers will find this a captivating, magical, grim story, as dark as the forests surrounding Ofelia’s new home. But I’m not sure the book adds all that much for those of us who have seen, and loved, the film – except perhaps as a reminder that we really should go and watch it again.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review